BATON ROUGE — People do tend to be quiet while observing art. On Saturday night here in Death Valley, there came a traveling exhibition of art so profound that it did an almighty job of instilling quiet. Methodically, sometimes spectacularly, it steadily quieted a booming sound that had come cascading out of the American Southeast at the opening kickoff and had made even the shyest neck hairs stand and salute.
It was a rarefied exhibit of the art of American football, college division, with 102,321 patrons in Tiger Stadium glimpsing Alabama, whose 29-0 win made a team ranked all the way up at No. 3, LSU, look as if No. 3 were a ranking tens of notches beneath No. 1. It also reinforced that watching Alabama football in the year 2018 has become an exercise not for thrill-seekers — for there is no suspense — but for football connoisseurs.
“We really wanted to make a statement in this game,” said the conductor, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, as “a lot of people talked about our (weak) schedule,” all going to show how artists can get so huffy about slights.
As the total-yardage tally climbed from 149-38 to 325-67 at halftime to 471-108 after three quarters to 576-196 at the end, a perfectly excellent team from LSU (7-2) came to look as if traveling by stagecoach. “Our offensive line was getting beaten one-on-one,” LSU Coach Ed Orgeron said. “We had max protection. Those guys were beating us. They stunned us. We tried everything we possibly could — go full wide, max protection. We just got beat.”
The people saw the smorgasbord that makes Alabama (9-0) complete except for its nutty extra-point crew. They saw the art of quarterbacking perfected as seldom before by Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawaiian with the Heisman Trophy apparently up ahead. They saw a defensive lineman, Quinnen Williams, master the valued knack of quarterback harassment with 2 ½ sacks and 3 ½ tackles for losses.
They saw Tagovailoa’s 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr. late in the second quarter to make the score 16-0, a throw so bloody gorgeous it deserved violin accompaniment. They saw Tagovailoa’s 44-yard touchdown scramble in the third quarter to make the score 22-0, a run so breathtaking even if he did say, “I think when I hit the 30, my leg gave out, and I was just going off momentum. I was just trying to gallop into the end zone. And I made it, so . . .”
They saw little things, from Tagovailoa’s unusually deft knack for finding clever angles of escape from rushers, to the way Christian Miller, a sam linebacker, can throw aside a blocker en route to causing havoc. Emblematic of Alabama’s burgeoning receiving corps, Henry Ruggs III made a an absurd 14-yard catch by stretching his right hand behind him to snare it, and Jaylen Waddle made an expert 28-yard catch on a third-and-15 when he stopped and balanced himself along the sideline.
The footwork of Damien Harris, who rushed for 107 yards on 19 carries, seemed, when combined with all else, unfair.
See all that, and one does go quiet.
“They’re a team that they do the little things well,” LSU defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko said. “You hop out of your gap, they’re gonna gash you. You misread your coverage, they’re gonna throw a big one on you.” Of Alabama’s offensive line, he said, “When they move, they move as a unit.”
On a soaring Louisiana football weekend which boasts the Nos. 1 and 3 college teams and arguably the Nos. 1 and 3 NFL teams, the Los Angeles Rams (8-0) playing at the New Orleans Saints (6-1) on Sunday, the stadium and the scenes around it did constitute a heap of a fuss. The traditional “Tiger Walk” through the throngs of fans felt unusually electric, with Orgeron leading the way and looking almost electrified.
Then the game began, and people wondered how Tagovailoa, the first-year starter, might cope with his first dive into such outlandish noise. He coped. Capably he marched Alabama down the field to the LSU 14-yard line until the drive fizzled in a mess of false starts plus some LSU antagonists busting in and taking a loud hit at Tagovailoa, who went down for a spell.
“Oh, he hit me in the goodies,” said the 20-year-old quarterback. “Whew! That hurt. That hurt for a good minute. I couldn’t breathe for a second.” He recovered, of course, in a “very, very hostile environment,” but “a good opportunity for our team,” as he put it.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve seen,” said Orgeron, who has seen some.
Even when LSU fans, irked at the first-half suspension of top defender Devin White over a debated targeting call from LSU’s previous game, got themselves a big cheer at the reversal of a targeting call on LSU safety Grant Delpit, which happened on an Alabama touchdown, Tagovailoa’s 15-yard pass to Ruggs that opened the scoring.
Even when Tagovailoa finally committed his first interception of the season on his 179th attempt, late in the second quarter, it somehow helped Alabama. A bomb, it pinned LSU at its own 4-yard line, an inconvenience it clearly did not need.
Even in the ancient area of rushing the football, often forgotten in this era, Orgeron wound up summarizing, “Two hundred eighty-one yards rushing for Alabama, 12 yards rushing for us.”
The show carried such a rarefied excellence that when the good LSU kicker Cole Tracy missed a 33-yard field goal attempt barely wide left with 10:45 remaining, he forged an act of inadvertent accuracy. Budging LSU’s score off its telltale zero would have seemed inappropriate, for the zero was perfect, undeserving of muddle.
That’s even if Alabama wasn’t perfect, especially on extra points, two of which it missed Saturday night to ring up six such foibles for the season. When it did make one after its closing touchdown with 5:42 left in the game, its corner of supporters supplied a mocking cheer.
They are, after all, connoisseurs.